The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Hardcover – Sep 11 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Bestselling Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Blank Slate) investigates what the words we use tell us about the way we think. Language, he concludes, reflects our brain structure, which itself is innate. Similarly, the way we talk about things is rooted in, but not identical to, physical reality: human beings take the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them and package their experience into objects and events. Examining how we do this, the author summarizes and rejects such linguistic theories as extreme nativism and radical pragmatism as he tosses around terms like content-locative and semantic reconstrual that may seem daunting to general readers. But Pinker, a masterful popularizer, illuminates this specialized material with homely illustrations. The difference between drinking from a glass of beer and drinking a glass of beer, for example, shows that the mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways. Separate chapters explore concepts of causality, naming, swearing and politeness as the tools with which we organize the flow of raw information. Metaphor in particular, he asserts, helps us entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. His vivid prose and down-to-earth attitude will once again attract an enthusiastic audience outside academia. (Sept.)
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Experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Pinker is fascinated by the symbiosis between language and thought. In this stimulating volume, a continuation of the discussion found in The Language Instinct (1994), he argues for the "real-world importance" of "the relation of language to our inner and outer worlds." Anchoring his discussion of why semantics matter to 9/11 and other momentous public events, Pinker teases apart the gap between the literal meanings of words and their elaborate connotations, which leads to fresh explanations of humor, the importance of metaphors, and the significance of swearing. Some of the most mind-expanding chapters involve the subtlest, most taken-for-granted aspects of mind, namely our sense of time, space, and causality. Drawing on philosophy, evolutionary psychology, physics, neurology, anthropology, and jokes, Pinker presents a convincing theory of conceptual semantics, itemizing the "fundamental ideas" that form the "language of thought." From politics to poetry, children's wonderful malapropisms to slang, Pinker's fluency in the nuances of words and syntax serves as proof of his faith in language as "a window into human nature." Seaman, DonnaSee all Product Description
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To convince us that small distinctions in language can make a real-world difference, Pinker opens with an insurance claim from the September 11, 2001 destruction of the two World Trade Center towers. The insurer had an upper limit on what they would pay for any single "event" that damaged the buildings. Was the damage caused by the single event of a terrorist attack, as claimed by the insurer? Or was it caused by the separate events of two airplane crashes, as counter-claimed by the buildings' owners? There was no clear answer in the careful legal language of the insurance contract.
There are two ways to read Pinker's book. The first is to read the whole thing, from introduction to closing paragraph. He describes the mental models we build while understanding and reasoning with language. Metaphor helps us use our concrete experience, such as the up/down distinction created by gravity, to inform more abstract dimensions such as better/worse. Pinker also explores the social dimensions that allow us to negotiate relationships while seeming to simply convey information. Having outlined the basics, Pinker turns to more entertaining aspects of language to sharpen our understanding. There is a far-ranging discussion of profanity which describes the "correct" way to swear and explains why some words are taboo.Read more ›
The Stuff of Thought ought to be titled The Stuff of Language - a tale told by a linguist full of sound and parsing signifying a fair bit of neat info about language but not a lot spot about the brain. This is because the book leans heavily on linguistics rather than the biological sciences and talks of how language has been taken apart by linguists and what this suggests about how our linguistic minds work. And if that is what you want in a book of this title, written by a well-known, clever, disciple of Chomsky, this is it. Pinker is an engaging, magpie intellectual in that he has an almost endless, tantalizing list of interesting facts, jokes and permutations at his fingertips while ripping through such subjects as: the social purpose of language, the mind as metaphor machine, the relation between language and the 'reality' we share, the relation between words and thinking and emotions, the etymology of words, for example, names, and naming, the symbolism in language, how we say one thing while meaning something quite different, how we use language as a medium of mental exchange, and so on.
The last paragraph of Chapter 1, Words and Worlds, is a quick summary of this book. If you are looking for someone to disaggregate language and show what this reveals about humans, this is a good book to buy. On the other hand, at 439 pages (before chapter notes) of medium-sized print, the book is 100 pages too long. I found myself skipping here and there. Read the first and last chapters first. They tell you the entire book in short form, though there is much fun missed, for ex, the Monty Python Spam skit and the chapter on swearing.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Came in quickly, and helped a lot in my Linguistic's course as added reading and an excellent resource.Published 8 months ago by Mitch Cochrane
I had no idea where the book would be going before I began listening to it. Yes, I first got the audiobook, so I could listen to it during my 90-minute summer walks by the lake. Read morePublished on Aug. 13 2011 by VDolan
While it has interesting moments, I found that this book was unintentionally ironic. Namely, Pinker is famous for supporting the idea that people aren't good at "grade-school... Read morePublished on April 13 2009 by A. Volk
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